Resiliency: January 2010 Archives

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What will we do post growth, post cheap energy, post resource abundance and post climate change? The Post Carbon Institute (PCI) convened its first meeting of Fellows this weekend in Berkeley to address these concerns. Many there and elsewhere have argued that these transformational changes are already becoming evident.

PCI Fellow Bill Rees, the co-originator of the Ecological Footprint, captured the mood of the group best when he said, "We have to adapt to the change rather then repress the change."

The Institute's Fellows were gathered by PCI from a wide variety of fields: energy, transportation, population, food/ agriculture, building and development, economics, social justice, education, urban issues, health, climate, biodiversity and water. The event marked a maiden face-to-face (and virtual) voyage to examine the brave new waters of the 21st century. About 25 of PCI's 29 Fellows participated.

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PCI Fellows Retreat, David Brower Center, Berkeley (Post Carbon Institute photo)

Asher Miller, PCI's executive director set the table for the three-day event. "Facing such daunting issues, we can either: 1) pack up and go home; 2) be a witness to history; 3) save what we can, which I call the Noah's Ark approach; or 4) work as hard as we can, and go as big as can go. Collectively we can come up with one thing, or do lots of things--we don't know which one will bring the best results."

The group of Fellows up until this point has been focused on producing a book (cover pictured above) of essays and case studies that will be released by University of California Press with Watershed Media in July, The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century's Sustainability Crises.

The Berkeley retreat focused on developing connective tissue among Fellows through facilitated exercises, planning and presentations. Some highlights--or lowlights--as many of the participants (myself included)  could be accused of being bearers of bad news:

Richard Heinberg, the Senior Fellow whose extensive work (The Party's Over, Blackout, Peak Everything) has provided a nexus for PCI while helping define "Peak Oil" thinking, has spoken to world leaders from Congress to European Parliament.

"I have nothing to show for all my presentation to political leaders," Heinberg said. "Anyone who questions the concept of growth is shunted off."

Erika Allen, Chicago manager for Growing Power, a national land trust that provides access to healthy local food in disadvantaged communities, explored a scenario where food supplies are cut off because of an energy supply disruption or other crisis. "We've been preparing around the principles of providing seven days of food for Chicago--what systems are in place to respond? We need to be able to grow food on concrete and on the tops of buildings."

The issue of sustainable agriculture, both urban and rural, was an overall emergent issue of the weekend, with talismanic Wes Jackson, founder and director of The Land Institute, providing an urgent view into a survival system that has been taken for granted.

"In the long run, soil is more important than oil," Jackson said, citing research that soil carbon concentrations in US have been halved since non-indigenous settlement, from 6 percent to 3 percent, because of poor conservation and industrial practices.

Grave consequences for climate-change influenced mass migrations were forecast by Brian Schwartz, a Johns Hopkins professor in public health. "Moving populations (because of climate change) will be very bad for society, the environment and health in every aspect."

Chris Martenson's The Crash Course presentation examined unsustainable levels of US debt, uncovering shocking new snapshots on the historic level of government and personal debt after a decade with zero job growth.

Martenson, a former corporate executive, later confessed that there are emerging opportunities in certain investments, job sectors and geographic areas. He was also optimistic about the can-do nature of Americans: "Give people something to do, and they'll put it together with joy and creativity, such as the Burning Man village."

Similarly, Rob Hopkins, the originator of the Transition Town movement, reported from the UK via Skype video (he gave up flying three years ago) that the effort to form locally organized community resilience around food, energy, construction and culture is rapidly multiplying in global locations. "It's spreading very, very fast, with new Transition Towns in Chile, Sweden, Canada, Italy and Australia."

"With resilience, we see an opportunity to take a shock and then make a step by the community in the right direction so it can advance itself," Hopkins said of the 300-plus transition initiatives. "Our role isn't to manage a lot of projects, but to support projects as they emerge."

Other Fellows presenting included author Bill McKibben (The End of Nature and 350.org), Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, and Rees, a professor at the University of British Columbia. Joe Brewer, founder and director of communications strategy consultancy Cognitive Policy Works, also led sessions on communications and messaging.

The results of the event included a forthcoming mission statement that was co-authored by nine different groups. My group on cities also consisted of Johns Hopkins professor Schwartz, City University of New York professor (and former New York City green building standard originator) Hillary Brown, and transportation expert Anthony Perl, author of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil.

We contributed concepts around "bioregionally grounded human communities" based on non-automotive transportation options, human-scaled neighborhoods and regionally produced sustainable food and energy. 

Groups also prepared proposals for collaboration and post-event project action, including a Resiliency Preparedness Kit; a communications strategy and roll-out plan; a regional sustainable agriculture investment model for production, processing and urban distribution; and a PCI-informed community development prototype approach for both domestic (Oberlin, Ohio) and international (most likely India or China) communities.

"We need to foster experimentation, re-localization,and  differentiation in our redundancies and behavior," said PCI executive director Miller. "Simple living can make us happier and can tap into the long history of humans as a species."

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.








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Tonight the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), a California-based think tank addressing sustainability issues associated with climate change, peaking resources and community resiliency, kicks off a three-day gathering with its Fellows (of which I am one) in Berkeley.

The Institute was founded in 2003, largely around the issue of peaking oil and energy supplies. Author Richard Heinberg (The Party's Over, Peak Everything) was the group's first Senior Fellow. Heinberg has been now joined by 28 other Fellows, and this is their first gathering.

From an initial focus on peaking energy resources and their potential impacts, PCI now addresses multiple areas and issues including climate change, consumption/ waste, communities, economies, ecology, education, energy, food/ agriculture, government, health, social justice, population, water, transportation.

Eighteen of those who are coming to Berkeley (five will join in remotely) to address how our government, society, communities and different industry sectors can prepare better for the system-based or "wicked problems" that climate change, peaking energy supplies and global recession present.

Participants will include:

  • David Orr (author and professor Oberlin College)
  • David Fridley (energy efficiency and renewables expert, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs)
  • Chris Martenson ("Crash Course" economist)
  • Josh Kaufmann (US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest Labs)
  • Michael Bomford (food and energy scientist, Kentucky University)
  • Sandra Postel (author, director Global Water Policy Project)
  • Tom Whipple (energy expert, former CIA analyst)
  • Zenobia Barlow (author, director Center for Ecoliteracy)
  • Bill Sheehan (consumption and waste expert, Product and Policy Institute)
  • Gloria Flora (public lands expert, director Sustainable Obtainable Solutions)
  • Erika Allen (urban agriculture expert, manager Growing Power)
  • Anthony Perl (author, transportation expert and professor, Simon Frazier University)
  • Hillary Brown (partner, New Civic Works, founder NYC Office Sustainable Design)
  • Stephanie Mills (author, bio-regionalism expert)
  • Wes Jackson (author, founder/ president The Land Institute)
  • William Ryerson (director Population Media Center)
  • Brian Schwartz (public health expert, professor Johns Hopkins University)
  • Bill Rees (community resilience expert, author, University British Columbia)
  • David Hughes (energy expert, geoscientist for Canadian Geological Survey)
  • Warren Karlenzig (urban expert, author, president Common Current)
Other participants that will join in remotely include authors Michael Shuman, Josh Farley, Bill McKibben and Richard Douthwaite, Transition Town movement originator Rob Hopkins; Johns Hopkins' Cindy Parker.

Look for my report next week on the outcome of this historic gathering.





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This weekend I volunteered to warn shopkeepers and officials in my San Francisco suburb about dangerous urban flooding potential during the next week.

Every Friday noon in San Anselmo the "flood siren" (not disaster siren, mind) is tested. Within fifteen minutes of the last time it blasted for real in 2005, at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday, three to four feet of water was soon gushing down the main street (see photo above) into homes and businesses. People here are acutely sensitive to heavy rain and the level of the town's creek, since they are still trying to rise up from that cold watery blow four years ago.

Up and down the California coast, metro areas including Los Angeles and San Francisco, are experiencing a series of El Nino-generated Pacific storms. Further inland, Phoenix will also take a big hit. The forecasted 6-10 inches of rain over the next days will almost certainly bring localized flooding and mudslides. Ocean storm swells will reach 20-30 feet on some parts of the coast by Thursday, lashing roads, infrastructure and housing. (Update Jan. 22: the storms this week luckily did not flood San Anselmo, but did cause heavy rains, some flooding and infrastructure damage throughout the state and Arizona, while also reducing the region's drought).



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NOAA 5-day precipitation forecast from 1/16/10: small purple circles in California represent areas expected to receive 8+ inches.

How much of this weather and its impacts can be directly attributed to global climate change, I will not venture. The coastal and tidal flooding that is expected in California, however, will be one of the hallmarks of a changing climate. Another effect will be drought---which California and the Southwest have been experiencing for three years--the flip side of climate change's growing precipitation impacts. Coastal and desert urban areas in particular need to steel themselves for such a schizophrenic future.

Leaving things up to "officials" to figure out disaster plans is not recommended; true community resilience will require research, networking and knowledge sharing within and outside one's normal sphere. In my case, I think I was able to plug a few vital holes that may have been missed.

Most store owners in San Anselmo (pop. 12,000) that I spoke with were savvy about imminent flood danger. Based on their experience with the New Year's Eve flood of 2005, a few shopkeepers had excellent information and resources: they referred me to online creek-level readings ("anything over ten feet and I'm out of here," one man said), and email alerts that can be sent to email or phones from Nixle.com, a national information mass customization service that localizes updates on disasters, road closures and crime.

Nixle, for instance, has newly updated postings from the San Anselmo Police Department about potential hazards for flooding and safeguards. There's even a local AM radio (1610) station dedicated to disaster updates for the area.

But none of that seemed to be enough to really prepare people. One friend, a council member from the neighboring town that was also flooded in 2005, did not know about the severity of the forecast weather when I chanced to run into him at a musical performance over the weekend. He had me send him the forecast links from NOAA showing him exactly how much precip is expected to fall. He emailed back, "We're trying to get our flood plain residents to batten down the hatches. This should help."

Other small business owners that I spoke to were new to town, including immigrants. Unlike long-time business owners who told me they were warned by the police (or that had vivid mud-damaged inventory and moldy wallboard memories), the new shopkeepers knew almost nothing about flooding dangers or where to get the free sandbags.

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Those who were around in December 30, 2005, have learned that floodgates (above, white board) for each business offers the best protection. In actuality, these are just rails installed on each side of entrance door where a piece of plywood can be inserted as a barrier against the torrents of water can come crashing against and under the front shop door (usually glass). Gates work even better than sandbags, but sandbags will prevent the glass doors from being smashed open.

The town and surrounding communities, even the federal government, tried to take some larger-scale policy actions after the 2005 flood, which caused almost $100 million in property damages county-wide. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) developed a new local flood risk map based on the 2005 event, and insurers offered policies that residents within the areas were urged to purchase. An extensive engineering study of the region's watershed is being made, a $125-per-property flood fee narrowly passed a controversial vote, while creek debris clean-ups have become popular all-age volunteer events each fall before the winter rainy season arrives.

Some houses have been rebuilt and raised above the flood-prone region along San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek. This normally placid creek empties seven miles later into San Francisco Bay. High bay tides back the creek up so that it can't empty into the bay quickly.

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San Anselmo/ Corte Madera Creek Watershed: San Anselmo is in center, San Francisco Bay, on right

Unfortunately, it doesn't take much time for San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek (watershed in brown above) to back up from San Francisco Bay and rise in the Marin communities lining its flood plain, since it is surrounded by steep canyons that channel rainfall off nearby hills. Asphalt parking lots, impermeable pavement and poorly planned development have also increased the speed by which rainwater runs off into the creek. For instance, when I checked creek levels online Sunday the 17th, the creek was 2.9 feet, but after heavy rains Sunday night and Monday morning the creek was already over 6 feet. Flood stage is 11 feet (update 1/20/10: after heavy rain, the creek level went from 4 feet to 10 feet in matter of five hours, before receeding slightly) .

The irony of California's winter storms is that they bring needed water to reservoirs and mountain snowpack, promising to reduce or temporarily end the region's ongoing drought, which has been costing the agriculture industry and some cities hundreds of millions in lost revenue and in water purchases. Marin County last year was the first in the Bay Area to approve desalination from San Francisco Bay water, despite energy and marine environmental impacts along with a hefty $100 million-plus price tag.

Not surprisingly, the state's residents have a love-hate relationship with their winter weather. To make the affair even more volatile, climate change may be swinging the status from drought to flood in a matter of a few weeks.

Indeed, California's coastal metros (along with the Gulf Coast, including Florida and New Orleans) may be the first litmus test for how to adapt to the unpredictable excesses and scarcities of a changing climate.

 Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

 

About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Resiliency category from January 2010.

Resiliency: March 2010 is the next archive.

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